A few weeks ago, a new book called Basic Witches: How to Summon Success, Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with Your Coven hit the shelves and all hell broke loose in the social media witch-o-sphere. Written by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman, published by Quirk Books, and seemingly available in trendy clothing shops everywhere on the planet, it appears to be just a novelty item designed to capture the attention of young women as they stand bored in the check-out line.
One would have thought the book was actually titled Basic Witches: All Your Witchcraft Are Belong to Us from all the pearl-clutching and terrified moaning its discovery elicited. I read comments from people about how they saw it and literally puked in their mouths, I read angry diatribes about just how fake and insincere it all was, I saw hopeless hand-wringing over the pending Becky-invasion (with pumpkin spice latte in hand!) taking over witchcraft, there were even questions here and there over whether this was cultural appropriation.
On the show lately, Chris and I have been having a lot of discussions with our guests, as well as just amongst ourselves in the mini-episodes, over favorite witch-related books and movies, both the kind we enjoy (or hate) now and the ones we feel were instrumental in aligning our newbie feet to the paths we now stride. It’s been mostly fun, despite the occasional grumping in the sidelines from those who require ideological purity and seriousness at all times- they don’t like fun, it would seem, and believe that the witchcraft and paganism communities need to get their collective heads out of the clouds and stop liking fluffy fantasy quite so much in their chosen entertainment because we must all be very very serious in every breath of every day.
At first glance, one could feasibly make the argument that these two instances are completely intertwined- the Basic Beckys and the everything-is-very-serious battle cry. Take a step back though and look at it again. When you were a wee neonate, what piece of pop culture fluff made you think Oh yeah, witches are fucking awesome? By and large, mostly all of us have at least one. Even the ever-strange kids like I was, left to run amuck by absent parents and who have pretty much always known that we’re really fucking weird and had no real need of alignment in our consumed fictions, had one or two instances where we watched or read something and thought to ourselves That’s what I want to do.
Chris names the film, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and the mail-order Time Life Series, Mysteries of the Unknown. They were formative to him as a child in his ultimately seeking witchcraft. As a kid, I was a big fan of the film Bell, Book, and Candle and then later, as a slightly older kid- Dario Argento’s Suspiria. My first real witchcraft book which wasn’t a storybook, which I “procured” through a mall bookshop when I was just barely squeaking out of a single-digit years of age, was The Modern Witch’s Spellbook by Sarah Lyddon Morrison, which had the simply amazing subtitle of A Guide to the Mysteries of the Occult, Explaining How to Cast Spells, Work Charms and Love-Magic, and Improve Daily Living Through Witchcraft. Glorious. My original copy (and its sequel, The Modern Witch’s Spellbook- Book II) stayed with me all the way through my early twenties, when I sold the majority of my books to a local used bookstore during the fallout of a failed marriage.
When we’ve spoken to other people about what their cultural markers are for this sort of thing, we’ve heard a huge variety of responses that appear to be mostly predicated on age/generation. The older Gen-X kids and the younger Baby Boomers seem a little spookier or consume their fictions with a medieval flair (like the 1981 film Excalibur or 1975’s The Wicker Man or Marion Zimmer-Bradley’s book The Mists of Avalon), whereas the generations which come after- the younger Gen-X, Millenials, and those in-between, are particularly fond of films like The Craft and Practical Magic, television shows like Charmed and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and authors like Silver Ravenwolf- especially her book, Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation.
Being mid-to-late Gen-X myself (and a complete snob, if’n you ask some people), I tend to turn my nose up at the perceived fluffiness I found in what the younger generations liked or identified with, especially things like Silver Ravenwolf’s catalog of work. With all of these recent conversations Chris and I have been having though, I’ve started noticing these natural shifts in generational paradigms and thus, am attempting (ATTEMPTING) to dial back my knee-jerk inclination to be an old woman shouting at clouds. Purely by virtue of the media available for consumption when I became of a certain age, my cultural markers are naturally different from the younger crowds and that same younger crowd will also eventually go through the same shift I did- they may even be going through it as we speak. Despite how the media still insists on framing them as such within and to society- Millennials are no longer children, y’all. The youngest of them are squarely in their twenties. Adults! These adults are now seeing their own beloved cultural markers shunted aside for whatever is coming up next, just as my own markers had been ignored in favor of theirs.
Bringing all of this yammering back to my original point of note- Basic Witches. This book is a bit of fluff, I’m not even going to begin to argue that point, even without picking the book up for myself and cracking the spine. It is exactly what it is, which is something quite obviously designed and written for a very specific demographic: young-ish, female or male (mostly female though, I’d think) hip to the current societal climate, but with feelings of powerlessness in the same societal climate. It is not written for the seasoned practitioner, the intermediate type, or even the fledgling with pin feathers just starting to develop. This is a book for the completely untouched. It is an open door with a welcome mat, a field of pristine snow, a blank book. Do they lead anywhere worthwhile? I’d reckon that’s up to the individual who chooses them. After all, not everyone who was a fan of Charmed became a witch- not by a long stretch, and out of those who did actually start practicing witchcraft because of their exposure to that show, not all of them stuck with it.
Some did, though. And they’re still here with us, still kicking. Just as there were a few who stuck around after The Worst Witch and Scooby-Doo and Bewitched and Harry Potter (which, just in case you weren’t feeling old enough yet, first came out twenty years ago– you’re welcome). We all have different roads which led us to this particular place in our lives, we all have unique routes we used to find our hearts. They all have their own validity, their own truth. So, why take a shit on how someone else got here? Why take pot-shots and cackle and kaw kaw kaw over the insincerity of another’s chosen media? I’ve seen some people posit that others do this because they feel insecure in their own witchcraft, but I don’t know how much I believe that- it smacks too much of one’s mother saying They’re all just jealous when the bullies were acting particularly mean. I didn’t believe that then and I certainly don’t believe it now. It’s an imperfect description- in other words, it’s bullshit.
I think it’s maybe a few different things really, sometimes even a combination thereof. One part is the brain believing its own hype- you’re a terribly grand and powerful magus, aren’t you? You’ve worked for so long in discovering the mysteries of the universe and spent quite a bit of money on all these very fancy tomes of mystical knowledge in your library. You’ve put in the time. You have all the great powers of glorious nature and beyond at your very fingertips and this young and snotty upstart who picked up a book in the check-out line of Old Navy is just a pretender to the throne, HOW DARE THEY DO THEY EVEN KNOW WHO ANDREW CHUMBLEY IS.
Another part is the idea of being a member of the incredibly exclusive Cool Kids™. Once you’re amongst these tight ranks, the gates close and only the truly worthy may enter after. Back in the day when I still used to draw all over my face with eyeliner (it was an eye of Horus, ok?) and drape my form in swathes of crushed velvet and carefully tattered lace, my friends and I referred to this as “I was Goth before you were Goth and you’re not allowed to be Goth” when we saw other people getting shitty about babyGoths coming to the scene because of Marilyn Manson (not Goth at all) or Evanescence (ditto). This is much the same concept- I was a witch before you were a witch and you’re not allowed to be a witch. Bah! What a lot of grandstanding silliness.
There are no actual Witch Police and no one has been elected to the High Inquisitor office just yet, so not a single individual actually has the authority to make sweeping pronouncements of who gets to be a witch- even with all of these head-bobbing hens clucking nervously away over “these youngins stealing our aesthetics”. Personally, I’m a fan of whenever witchdom re-enters the public sphere (re-enters, because this isn’t the first time and it sure as shit won’t be the last) because it eventually makes it over to the fat girl stores like Torrid and I’m able to buy clothes I actually like/can wear, with weird astrological symbols and such on them instead of the usual offerings of pink and beige dresses with flutter sleeves. Call me a capitalist drone at heart, but damn do I love me some spooky-themed fashion. Handmade, worker-centered, socialist utopias very rarely offer plus-size after all and when they do, they tend to be in the realms of potato-sack in shape, color, and interest.
I get it though, I really do- the irritation at the upstarts, at the pretenders to the throne. Witches, at our very core, are outsiders and a lot of us have already had an outsider status assigned unwillingly by other people for reasons beyond witchcraft. Too fat, too tall, too poor, too gay, too weird, too smart, too brown, too obsessed with dragons- outsiders all, you name it. The marginalized, with very little in the way of social power and even less ability to elicit change, both personal and wider-reaching. We come to witchcraft to take that power for ourselves and within witchcraft, we now hold the controls so often elusive in the mundane world. Many of us used to be on the wrong end of having sand kicked in our faces and now we finally get to hold the reins in our own two hands. This is who we are really, when you get down deep and dissect things. So, it’s completely natural to bristle at the newbies who are finding themselves in this world or at the dilettantes who just wish to throw on an edgy mask for a short period of time.
At one point though, most of us were that same person standing in the check-out line, looking at some tacky piece of fluff and feeling a strange *ping!* inside our chests. Very few are actually born on this path, if truly any at all (that’s a blog post for another time), and it would behoove the lot of us if we could all start being a little more understanding of those who aren’t quite far along on the path as we are or who have different cultural markers bringing them into the fold (I include myself in this admonition, by the way). Those of us who are here now are here now and those who haven’t gotten here yet- we need to save a seat for. If it is their Will to come and stay, then they will come and stay. Any purity politicking beyond that is playing at being the witch police and I don’t know about you, but I’ve got more important shit to worry about right now. Rightful criticisms are valid and necessary, but they need to be constructive to be fruitful- not just petty sniping from the sidelines.